I suspect we will look back on the last fifteen years as the era in which post-apocalyptic literature and film became the imaginative default in our own perilous world, in the same way that ill-tempered aliens and radioactive mutant insects appeared as the threat of nuclear war became chillingly real in the 1950’s. Contending with monsters on the screen allowed a sense of mastery over forces we feared and could not control in the same fashion that fairy tales brought children face to face with ogres, trolls, goblins, witches, and adults capable of unspeakable cruelty. It’s possible that kids’ fascination with dinosaurs and sharks also allows a sense of mastery of large and fearsome forces, as does, in later years, spiraling into space on death-defying thrill rides.
Just a theory.
Theories such as those abound, and the supposition of environmental end times is certainly at work, particularly among writers who will live beyond the Baby Boomers. Raised in prosperity, distracted by their own life journey, that generation does not leave a secure future. The theory currently held by the President’s advisor, Steve Bannon, derives from his somewhat idiosyncratic take on speculative work done by William Strauss and Neil Howe. The Strauss-Howe Generational Theory was first presented in their book, Generations, and then expanded in The Fourth Turning to suggest that four particular sorts of generations move through history, each producing a cycle of moods, which they call turnings. In recent history, the generations have cycled in this order: The Lost Generation,the G.I. Generation, the Silent Generation, the Baby Boom Generation, Generation X, the Millennial Generation, and the Homeland Generation.
The four turnings describe the cycles of history with particular attention to two notable polar opposites, generations experiencing Awakening and generations experiencing Crisis. Awakening describes the attack upon institutions in the name of autonomy and personal spiritual growth. Strauss and Howe considered the consciousness movement (Boom Generation) which began in the 1960’s as the most recent Awakening. Awakening, they posit, is followed by Unravelling, the third turning. Institutions weaken, individualism is more important than coalescence. The Long Boom and the Greedy 80’s are evidence of an Unravelling leading to Crisis, the fourth turning.
Crisis often involves war in which existing institutions are destroyed and then rebuilt resulting in renewed civic involvement and the creation of stronger institutions. 1929’s Wall Street Crash and the outbreak of W.W.II were the last Crisis. The generation that came of age as the nation went through Unravelling became adults during the Crisis, they, the G.I. generation,were a generation that pulled things together, a civic generation as personal sacrifice was necessary in order to survive. In Howe and Strauss’ terms,this was a Hero generation. The next generation, born during Crisis, came to an age in which all attention was directed toward the Crisis. These, the Silent Generation, were adaptive, in the authors’ terms, an archetype they call the Artist. As this cycle ended, the next generation, the Baby Boom, born near the end of Crisis, inherit a rejuvenated nation and the freedom to become idealists, Prophets, a self-conscious force toward Awakening. Good news/bad news is that it is this generation that is at the helm when the cycle takes the nation to Crisis. The theory observes that, for the most part, leaders in almost all arenas today are members of the Boom generation. Waiting to take their place is Generation X, what is called a Nomad Generation or Reactive Generation, a generation bringing Awakening.
Bannon’s interpretation assumes conflagration and the most damaging war yet. As he sees it, the Boom generation moved up at a moment of great prosperity and success, the dawn of what was the height of American global supremacy. The Nomads, GenX, are moving into Awakening, in reaction to the mess the Boom generation leaves behind. Right behind them, Millennials have to pick up the pieces as we hit yet another Crisis, and for Bannon, the Fourth Turning, Crisis, means global war. His take is that the cycle of Crisis has played itself out with the American Revolution, The Civil War, Depression and World War Two. He predicts the next cycle will bring war on an even greater scale. Apocalypse.
Bannon’s mission has been to find a leader willing to bust up the existing systems in order to be able to deal with a Crisis already underway. Given his place in the halls of power, should crisis mean war, it won’t be easy to separate this supposed generational mood and the self-fulfilling convictions of a presidential advisor.
I am intrigued by generational theory, but on a bad day, my more personal impulse toward thinking apocalyptically has to do with the Antarctic and Greenland’s ice sheets melting, and that’s a lot of ice, about the size of the United States and Mexico combined. I’m made uneasy in learning that more than half of all the animals in the world have disappeared since 1970, and a quarter of all species of mammal are in danger of extinction; I don’t want to say goodby to Polar Bears, Rhinos, Snow Leopards, Mountain Gorillas, Albacore Tuna (Sorry, Charlie) . The Great Barrier Reef is well on the way to becoming the OK Barrier Reef. Species after species are throwing up their paws and fins in a final salute to a planet that can no longer support them. Oklahoma has become Earthquake Central, experiencing more than a thousand quakes per year greater than 3.0 on the Richter Scale. More than a billion barrels of wastewater injected near faults have the state rocking on a regular basis.
So, there’s that.
Apparently, however, there is reason to hope that many of what seemed irreversible trends are actually capable of reversal, and that all is not necessarily lost. We may not need Mad Max on Fury Road in the next few years; maybe we won’t have to host the Hunger Games instead of the Olympics. Despite the reluctance of some camps to give science and scientists the credit they are due, economic advantage goes to those who find ways to make thing work, and scientists are generating new, economically advantageous solutions to real problems on a daily basis.
Finally, the apocalyptic impulse, I’ve been advised is not out there, but in here, and by in here I mean in my Baby Boomer mindset. We, the Boom Generation, have had it our way for so long, held on our positions of authority for so long, continue to live for so long, that, at some point we begin to believe (because, I mean, Come On!) the world probably can’t go on without us.
I’ll admit that I do equate my extinction with total extinction because I’ll be extinct. That’s about as far as my projections can go. Can I conceive of planting a tree that my grandchild might swing on after my personal extinction has taken place? Absolutely.Beyond any positive legacy I can leave behind, I actually think that my children and their generation have the ability to make the world work at least as well as we have – not much of a challenge there!
So, whether the generational cycles are predictive or things just happen to happen, those who follow my generation will have to work quickly to set things right. I’ll be as extinct as the Snow Leopard, but I really don’t believe the world ends with me.
One thought on “Apocalypse When?”
Elizabeth Kolbert’s Sixth Extinction gave me great peace of mind. It’s what humans do. If it’s big and we show up, goodbye! Only now we’re going to see how much of Gaia we can take with us as we go extinct. That’s what happens when cancer metastasizes.